Rejecting the Vegetarian Label

I don't eat meat, but I'm no vegetarian.

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I am a non-meat-eating non-vegetarian. I guess one could call me "veggie-prax"--a vegetarian in practice, but not by ideology. I usually attribute my continued choice to avoid eating meat to "emotional reasons." I have always been glad when my family has had the opportunity to eat meat. For most of my adult life, I have treated my choice to avoid meat as a private eccentricity.

Questioning Meat-Eating on Other Grounds

I have, however, become less insistent about my support for (other people) eating meat. A few years ago, I had several students who were vegetarians, and two were militantly so. As their Talmud teacher, I was concerned that they understood their own practice in Jewish terms. So I re-examined the Jewish arguments for vegetarianism. Most importantly, I reread Richard Schwartz's Judaism and Vegetarianism and his Judaism and Global Survival.

Schwartz's arguments did strike me as authentically Jewish. Rather than focus on animal rights, Schwartz focuses on human, and Jewish, responsibilities. Schwartz emphasizes classical Jewish concerns and their practical implementations. Current methods for raising animals do violate Jewish ethics about tza'ar ba'alei hayyim, the suffering of animals. Diets rich in meat products endanger health, and we are commanded v'nishmartem me'od, to be very careful with our health (Deuteronomy 4:6).

Grasping at huge amounts of grain in order to feed animals for slaughter diverts needed food resources from the world's hungry and violates the obligation of pato'ach tiftach, opening our hands to the needy. And the environmental degradation due to a meat-eating consumer culture threatens the health of our environment and ignores God's command l'ovdah  ul'shomrah (Genesis 2:15), to preserve and work the land properly. Our focus must be on stewardship and responsibility.

Is Veal Treif?

As an educator, I think the terminology  we use is very important. For instance, some Jews (including rabbis) have begun to call veal "treif" (not kosher) because of the horrendous conditions which the animals experience during commercial veal production. While I am not sure whether the treatment of calves is qualitatively worse than the treatment of other animals in industrial farming, I am sure that these animals (if slaughtered properly) are not "treif."

If we are to protest the treatment of these animals by not eating them, then we should call the animals "pasul" (invalid) or simply "asur" (forbidden) because of the violation of tza'ar ba'alei hayyim. Calling veal treif is a simplification and an obfuscation akin to explaining one's commitment to kashrut by claiming to be a vegetarian. Not eating veal because one says it is treif will not change commercial veal production, but prohibiting it explicitly because of the cruelty involved just might.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.